Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Great pop songs tend to revolve around simple ideas. I Love You and This Is Awesome, I Love You and This Is Awful, Why Won't You Love Me, I Don't Love You Anymore And You Should Leave—those themes cover about 90 percent of the music enjoyed by the world at large. That's not a knock on popular music. There's a lot of variation and nuance that a good songwriter can squeeze out of those four standard tropes—if you don't believe me, listen to every Beatles album before Sergeant Pepper. (After that, the Beatles started writing songs about the topic that makes up the last 10 percent of pop music: We Are On Drugs and Shit Does Not Make All That Much Sense.)
But as some really excellent, really famous songwriters age (or alternately, start hooking up with really pretentious artists whose names rhyme with “Hoko Tone-o”) they try to branch out from these basic themes, either because they're tired of writing about love or because the Have Something Important to Say. Call it Sting Syndrome.* Like adolescents who just read A People's History of the United States, these songwriters stop doing (so many) drugs, look around the world, and discover, shockingly, that there are a lot of problems with it. That's how we get Michael Jackson's “Black or White,” Paul McCartney's and Stevie Wonder's awful “Ebony and Ivory,” and most of all, that's how we got John Lennon's “Imagine.”
Now, I don't know that much about Lennon's post-Beatles career, but I know that “Imagine” is his most famous song, a song I hear in grocery stores and laundromats, a song's whose legacy has lived on thanks to Yoko Ono, who acts like Gandhi wrote the lyrics and has constructed a monument of bullshit and light to it. It's one of the most critically acclaimed songs of the last century and number three on Rolling Stone's list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” And I hate it.
Don't get me wrong—it is catchy. It's got that nice gentle piano riff and a good melody. This is John Motherfucking Lennon we're talking about, after all. The man could have written a song about how much he likes Triscuits and it would have been musically interesting and probably a number five hit in the UK. But the reason everyone likes “Imagine” isn't for its catchiness, it's for its lyrics, which are put on a pedestal along with “Blowin' in the Wind” and the famous bits of the Bible. If you want to read the lyrics, here they are.
Yes, that John certainly is a dreamer. No, he isn't the only one. Many people imagine what it might be like to live in a world with no wars, religion, or countries. That would probably be pretty cool. We'd sit around playing the sitar, smoking really primo dope, and having sex with one another in a variety of positions. So what? Imagining is easy. Everyone imagines, and that's the fucking problem. The difficult part is when you stop imagining and try to get from point A (your shitty life) to point B (the sitars, the fucking, etc). Martin Luther King wasn't a great man because he had a dream, he was a great man because he was willing to get arrested, beaten, and even die for that dream.
Compare MLK's dedication to the worldview expressed in “Imagine.” The song doesn't advocate any action, it doesn't detail any specific problems or solutions it just sort of drifts along and says, “Hey, wouldn't it be great if things were great?” Not every song needs to be a treatise on geopolitics but shouldn't a “meaningful” song actually mean something?
“Imagine” could be the anthem of the ineffectual hippie movement, the people who “broke down barriers” by taking acid, listening to trippy music, and being promiscuous. The song fetishizes thoughts and fantasies and ignores direct action. It explicitly asks the listener to “join the dreamers” in order to make the “world live as one,” which is one of the least-subversive ideas I've ever heard. It's subtle pro-capitalist, pro-establishment propaganda: the institutions the hippies supposedly opposed (the military-industrial complex, big business, etc) would prefer that they keep dreaming—while they're sitting in meditation circles and seeking transcendence, they can be easily ignored. Actually trying to change things is too hard for most people, which is why as the hippies aged and realized that imagining didn't do anything for anyone, they started figuring out ways to make money.
Ironically, young John Lennon was way ahead of the hippies. The Beatles covered “Money (That's What I Want)” early on and wrote cynical, mocking anthems like “Revolution 1.” They realized that the most meaningful, resonant songs are about the endless permutations personal relationships, not just putting your schmaltzy personal philosophy to music. Then Lennon grew his hair out and turned into a caricature of a painfully earnest hippie.
Case in point: the “Bed In” protest he and his new bride Yoko Ono performed in 1969. Non-violent protest is supposed to draw attention to the brutal nature of the forces you are opposing—they hit you, and you don't hit them back, thus drawing attention to the justice of your cause and the injustice of your oppressors. By contrast, sitting in bed and getting people to pay attention to your “protest” because you are famous is just being lazy. I've praised lying in bed before, but not as a form of political action; you should lie in bed because it feels good. Similarly, you should have sex and do drugs and listen to Rock and Roll not because you are expanding your consciousness or breaking down barriers, but because it feels awesome. The problem with the Bed In, Ono's monument to “Imagine,” and the song itself is that they assume that just imagining is good in and of itself, that wishing for an impossible world is somehow helpful.
Maybe if Lennon had lived longer, he'd have the decency to be embarrassed by “Imagine.” Maybe he would have revealed that whole phase of his life to be a complicated satire on the soft and ideologically muddled state of the anti-war movement in the early 70s. But he's dead and, unfortunately, the song he left behind is a meaningless, maudlin, sap-filled ballad that doesn't care enough about its own ideas to examine them. Yes John, it would be nice if there were no countries, but if you want us to get there, we're going to have to kill some people.
*For the young people who are not rock historians: Sting was the frontman for The Police, who recorded some really awesome albums and had a string of hits like “Roxanne” and “Don't Stand So Close to Me” and “Everything She Does is Magic,” which were all great songs about love. Then Sting went solo and recorded the most serious, straight-faced, boring pop-jazz albums ever. Listen to as much of so-serious-it-makes-you-want-to-look-pensively-out-the-window-into-the-rain “Fields of Gold” as you can and then listen to “So Lonely” to get the taste out of your ears and you'll understand why Young Sting kicks Old Sting's ass.
(Note: this blog is now a weekly, with daily (or so) links and shorter entries. Further information here.)